Eight not enough for Freeport girls

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Nine sounds fine for the Freeport girls volleyball team.

The Yellowjackets are shooting for their ninth consecutive section championship this fall. Through the first half of WPIAL Section 4-AA play, the squad is on pace to achieve that goal with a 6-0 record.

“I am really enjoying this group. I am having fun; I look forward to going and watching them play and seeing them progress and getting better,” Freeport coach Tom Phillips said. “We have to get better each week. That's what it's all about. When you have competitive practices, that's what it breeds.

“Our practices are very intense. Our JV team is undefeated. There are a lot of young kids who want to compete.”

Competition has been a motivating factor for Freeport. The team hopes to contend for a WPIAL championship this year after an upset quarterfinal loss to Ambridge last season. Prior to that, the Yellowjackets played for three consecutive district titles and won one in 2010.

“They work hard and come into the gym every day and are strictly business. The results are there,” Phillips said. “They play a lot of volleyball. They have worked all summer. They played in a summer league. That's where it starts, if you're willing to put in the time and effort, and they are.”

Phillips points to the team's seniors and captains Amanda Hewitt, Megan Sweeney, Alexis Schrecengost, Emily Toy and Brittney Bianco as setting the tone this fall.

“I think we have great senior leadership this year. That's the key,” Phillips said. “I think this is probably the most athletic and best freshman class in my 13 years at Freeport. It's nice to have some balance. We had a lot of good young kids coming in, and that makes practices go well. These young kids don't want to sit on the bench; they want to compete.”

Versatility is another positive attribute for the team.

“The great thing about this team and the thing that makes us so unpredictable to so many teams is that my whole team can play anywhere. Our outside hitters can play in the middle. The girls on the right can play on the left side,” Phillips said. “We are very hard to defend. Their ability to play multiple positions, I think that's one thing that makes us tough to match up against.”

In addition to the freshmen and seniors, Freeport has a talented sophomore in Zoe Pawlak. The outside hitter is drawing college interest.

“Zoe is just an amazing athlete. She's a very humble girl. She fits in very well with this group. She is not one to boast about her accolades,” Phillips said. “She has the same goals and that's to get through the section and go as deep as we can in the playoffs and, hopefully, get in the state playoffs.”

Last weekend, the Yellowjackets got a taste of what the postseason might hold when they visited State College to participate in the Little Lion Invitational Tournament, one of the state's premiere events. Freeport lost to Class AAA power North Allegheny and split with Upper St. Clair and State College.

The team beat Conneaut and played Shaler as well. The Yellowjackets fell to Garden Spot in the championship.

“The big thing was, you can take away the wins and losses, it was just the level of competition that was so great. Of the 16 teams that were there, eight of them were in top 10 in the Triple-A rankings. The level competition was unbelievable,” Phillips said. “We did very well. It was a great experience for us. We started playing at 7:50 a.m. Saturday and were still going at 7:25 that same night. It's a good thing, though.”

Freeport went up Friday night to watch Penn State's women's volleyball squad take on Michigan State and stopped in after Saturday's tournament to see the Nittany Lions women face Michigan.

“It was a nice volleyball weekend, but a good one for the kids to see that competition,” Phillips said. “I am glad we got an invitation to play. It is definitely the most-competitive tournament we've ever played in, for sure.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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